What is ADHD?
You might have heard of ADHD in media, or perhaps one of your friends even has it. Being one of the most common disorders in the fields of neurology and psychiatry, there are millions of children as well as adults that have been diagnosed with ADHD.
There are lots of vague details or even misconceptions about what ADHD is or what the people that have ADHD are like. Hearing “deficit” and “disorder” make it seem like people with ADHD are impaired in a very profound way. While it does cause difficulties for a lot of people, many people’s conditions are well-managed. There are lots of people with ADHD that function normally. For some, it might even be unnoticeable.
There’s quite a bit to know about ADHD, but it doesn’t have to be a difficult thing to understand. Getting a little more perspective on the matter can help everyone become a little more knowledgeable and (hopefully) a little more understanding.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder – this means that something unusual happens in the nervous system of people with ADHD that affects how they develop as children that are growing.
Its name comes from the traits of the people that have the disorder: they are either inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive, or both. They can be excessively restless, have lots of energy, and have difficulty focusing for extended periods of time. It is usually parents, other caregivers, or teachers that notice these behaviours first.
Although the definite cause of ADHD is not fully understood, we do know that certain brain structures, certain nervous system substances, and genetics most likely play a role. The potential of external influences like environment, sleep, diet, and exposures during pregnancy are still being investigated.
There’s a little confusion among some people because of the term Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). This term is used to refer to the inattentive type of ADHD, but it has been discontinued in favour of using ADHD to refer to any of the three types.
ADHD Assessment: what are the signs and symptoms?
ADHD assessment results actually depend on the type of ADHD a person has. Lots of people don’t know that there are actually three distinct subtypes of ADHD, the third being a combination of the first two.
The way ADHD looks in adults will also be different from the way that it looks in kids. Some of the habits that children have will be outgrown. Meanwhile, some adults will develop new behaviours in response to the challenges that they face as they enter each new stage in life.
Children that have the inattentive subtype of ADHD mainly have a hard time staying focused and keeping their attention on one thing at a time. They also tend to show relatively slower thought performance and cognitive responsiveness.
Below are some examples of symptoms in the inattentive subtype:
- Having difficulty maintaining attention
- Finding it hard to listen when people talk
- Having problems being detail-oriented, making careless mistakes
- Issues being organized about activities and belongings
- Having trouble keeping track of tasks (especially in school or work)
- Easily distracted, attention easily diverted
- Being forgetful in general
- Misplacing things regularly
These symptoms in the inattentive subtype usually start to show when the child is around 8 or 9 years old. They usually persist throughout life. The inattentive subtype in children and adolescents is usually described as “being slow” or “being a daydreamer”. They usually have problems with school.
Children with the hyperactive subtype of ADHD mainly have trouble remaining calm or staying in place for too long. They might also have trouble restraining themselves from doing things – they tend to have trouble with behavioral inhibition.
Examples of the hyperactive-impulsive subtype symptoms include:
- Fidgeting, either with hands or feet
- Being excessively loud during play
- Talking very much, answering questions quickly or while the other person is still speaking
- Always seem like they are restless, speaking or moving at a very fast pace
- Squirming or moving around a lot while seated (especially in school settings)
- Or having trouble staying still
- Finding it difficult to wait
- Interrupting others
Symptoms of hyperactivity usually start coming out when the child is around 4 years old. As they get older, hyperactivity symptoms progress until they peak when the child is around 7 or 8. After this, they progressively become less prominent until adolescence.
Impulsivity symptoms on the other hand tend to last for life if there aren’t any interventions. In adolescents, impulsiveness is seen as a higher risk for people with ADHD to engage in risky behaviour. They might drive recklessly or practice unsafe sexual habits. They may also be more susceptible to substance abuse.
The combined subtype just means that the child has symptoms from both subtypes. It is very important to remember that a child isn’t really necessary one or the other. Even within the combined subtype, each child will have a different experience and presentation of ADHD. It is really more accurate to think of ADHD as many possible combinations of symptoms.
ADHD in Adults
ADHD in adults really tends to look different from children. Usually, the expression of hyperactivity is mostly gone (although they might still feel restless on the inside). Inattention tends to dominate more in adults. This is seen as different kinds of dysfunction in what are called executive or higher brain functions, such as:
- Having trouble with memory
- Multi-tasking or switching tasks constantly
- Having problems self-regulating or self-monitoring
- Problems inhibiting behaviour or speech (but more of the latter)
They tend to cause problems that affect the lives of adults more profoundly than they would in children. In adults that aren’t as well-adjusted, work and relationships may be affected.
Impulsivity is still seen in adults. However, it usually comes in the form of speaking without getting a chance to think first. It tends to affect work or relationships negatively, which can be a huge burden on the personal lives of the people affected. Some people also get into trouble while driving.
Hyperactivity is really much more controlled in adults, although many still report feeling restless. Lots of them might also talk excessively or have a tendency to interrupt people.
Adults also tend to experience emotional dysregulation – they might have trouble managing and expressing their feelings. They can be prone to being moody or having outbursts. They also experience more problems with socialization, health, and occupation.
People with ADHD
Disorders are generally recognized as disorders when they interfere with a person’s life. This means that what the person is experiencing is impairing their ability to function or to live as they would like to.
Despite its definition as a disorder, there are really lots of people with ADHD that live normal lives, and a great many that thrive where they are. Many people with ADHD go on to become successful, with quite a few even pursuing further studies as doctors or lawyers.
Even if ADHD assessment is mainly done by doctors or psychologists, parents, caregivers, and educators all play a part in its detection. Earlier detection means being able to provide children with the opportunities to learn, grow, and overcome the challenges they experience. Although they experience life differently, their potential to succeed is no different.